Look around everywhere you turn is heartache
It's everywhere that you go
You try everything you can to escape
The pain of life that you know
When all else fails and you long to be
Something better than you are today
I know a place where you can get away
It's called a dance floor, and here's what it's for, so—
Come on, vogue
Let your body move to the music
—from "Vogue" by Madonna and Shep Pettibone
It's 1 AM on Saturday, May 21. A tall black man stands alone in the shadows of a storefront at the corner of Madison and Cicero on the west side, wearing jeans that hang off his waist and a tight white T-shirt that clings to his muscular build. The headlights of passing cars illuminate his face: bright red lips, fake eyelashes, rouged cheeks. Cell phone in hand, he talks a caller through an alley to the back of a community center and the unmarked, bouncer-guarded entrance to Family Affair.
Family Affair is a ballroom competition—part of a national, underground LGBTQ phenomenon that builds community around queer identity and fierce, fashion-conscious striving. Balls are held nearly every weekend on the far south and west sides. Most happen at ungodly hours in unmarked spaces, which keeps them self-selecting and also helps organizers avoid the expense and permit hassles of more public social events.
Unseen by most outsiders, ballroom is a haven for well over 1,000 young, gay, Chicago black men whose sexuality can make them outlaws and targets in their neighborhoods. Ballroom poses its own, significant dangers. The stakes are high for ballroom competitors, and physical fights are common, sometimes leading to stabbings. The threat of gun violence is a growing fear.
But it also offers beauty, belonging, and even a sort of advanced education. The community's slang for the competitions is "getting your life."
At Family Affair, around 150 male-identified men, drag queens, transgender folks, and born women (whom ballroom participants call "allies") stand in clusters in a big, carpeted room, waiting for the competition to begin. Fluorescent lights run the length of the ceiling. Noise ricochets off walls covered with graffiti tags that read "Rebel fever," "I am change," "Never conform," "We demand life," and "AIDS is a fact."
Along the back, participants in leotards and knee-length skirts stretch like dancers at the bar. Men vie for scarce mirror space in the ladies' room—applying makeup can take hours. Some attendees (whose gender remains ambiguous even under skintight dresses) slither through the crowd, flirtily greeting one another as "baby" or "bitch." Others who can't be more than 18 years old clench cigarettes and plastic vodka bottles. Outside, people sit on cars, passing blunts and draining beer cans before dropping them to the pavement.
At around 2 AM, the ball starts full tilt. A techno beat drops and the crowd instantaneously forms a horseshoe around the room's center. "Ball it!" they chant to the beat. "Ball it!" Some step to the center to strut as the MC shouts their names into a microphone.
THE CHICAGO BALLROOM SCENE can be traced back to the 1920s. As southern blacks poured into what became known as Bronzeville during the Great Migration, a sizable gay community emerged. Interracial drag balls followed. In 1935, one transplant, a gay street hustler named Alfred Finnie, launched a series of drag events called Finnie Balls. Lasting into the 1960s, Finnie Balls became a south-side Halloween tradition and almost certainly Chicago's largest LGBTQ affair, attracting people of every sexual orientation from all over the city.
Like the Finnie Balls, today's ballroom competitions are partly a response to the fact that poor, black, gay kids have few places where they can mix with Chicago's broader gay community. Recent violence and protests in Boys Town suggest that that community is as racially and economically segregated as the rest of the city. But with segregation comes congregation, and balls are where gay black kids can find one another.
There are three types of balls: kikis, minis, and majors. Kiki balls are informal events with no cash prizes and no judges—usually just a gathering of friends. Mini balls are larger, with 100 to 150 participants and $200 to $500 cash purses. Major balls may attract as many as 500 competitors vying for up to $1,000. They're judged by panels that generally consist of Legends—ballroom veterans and leaders in the community. In the ballroom scene, you climb in status from Star to Statement to Legend and ultimately to Icon.
Every ball has a theme, from the kitschy ("'Thriller,'" "Entertainment Tonight," "Horror Movies") to the morbid ("Dubai Suicide"). A theme outlines costume requirements, or "effects." An effect for a recent military-themed ball read, "Bring it as an amputee"—i.e., all competitors had to perform as if missing a limb. Family Affair is looser than most; it has no effects. Participants are just encouraged to dress creatively.
Competitors "walk" in categories. The category called "Up in Pumps" tests how well they locomote in heels. "Fashion Labels" requires that they be cloaked in a single, premium brand name from head to toe. "Face" is a beauty competition stressing pinched noses and high cheekbones. Others are "Best Dressed" and "Glitz and Glam."
"'Schoolboy Realness With a Twist' is my category," says Justin Dixon as he stretches against a grafittied wall. A handsome, doe-eyed 21-year-old from Gage Park, Dixon studies criminal justice at Kennedy-King College by day. He's known as Buddha Omni in the ballroom scene. "First you walk as a regular schoolboy, meaning you try to pass as a boy and you're not clocky"—a clocky gay man being one who attempts to create a heterosexual facade but is still easily identified as gay. Dixon's Family Affair costume consists of a stocking cap, low-hung basketball shorts, and a gray ribbed undershirt. "The twist," he adds, "is when you later walk in the ball as a gay boy and vogue."
Vogueing is a competitive dance style that borrows techniques from krumping, break dancing, and jazz and modern dance. It's attributed to Willi Ninja, who started competing in the Harlem ballroom scene in the 1980s. He's also been cited as an inspiration for Madonna's "Vogue," which became a sensation on MTV in 1990 and popularized the style for a mass audience.
A competitive vogue dancer in Chicago today has to hit five elements: spins, dips, hands, catwalks, and dovewalks. Spins are pirouettes that land in a dip, which is a drop to the floor from a standing position on an eight-count beat. (Dips are the dramatic climax of a vogue performance; when competitors do them, onlookers yell "Ow!" and extend an arm as if throwing dice.) "Hands" refers to drawing lines and shapes in the air with your arms during a catwalk, which is the same thing as a model's runway walk. Dovewalking is moving across the floor in a crouched position—a kind of cross between Chuck Berry's duckwalk and traditional Kazakh folk dancing. "It's a challenging competition," says Dixon. "But it keeps you off the streets and keeps you doing something positive."